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Court takes up state employee pension dispute

By Sascha Cordner

Tallahassee, FL – A judge heard arguments this week about a new law that makes it mandatory for state employees to contribute 3-percent of their salary to their retirement. As Sascha Cordner reports, lawyers representing several public employee unions say the law is unconstitutional. But, lawyers representing the state contend the Legislature was not in violation of the Florida Constitution when they approved the contribution.

Governor Rick Scott and the Legislature made it their mission this past Legislative Session to force state employees to pay a percentage of their wages to their retirement. In an interview about six months ago, Scott said he was just trying to be fair:

"Our taxpayers, the people that are paying for our state workers, very few of them have a pension. Most of them, if they have a retirement plan, they put up all the money for, so we have to be very fair for our state workers. We've got to make sure we do the best we can to treat them fairly, but we've got to make sure we treat our taxpayers fairly also."

A Governor's spokesman says that is also Scott's current position on the subject. But, many state employees were not happy when the Legislature approved a three-percent contribution to their retirement at the time, even though it was a lower amount than what the Governor originally called for.

So, several public employee unions filed a lawsuit against state officials, including Governor Rick Scott, calling the law unconstitutional and a breach of contract. And, a Leon County Circuit Judge heard arguments at the Leon County Courthouse Wednesday.

Though Judge Jackie Fulford gave no indication how she would rule, during the latter part of the hearing, she repeatedly challenged part of the state's defense. It involved a Florida Supreme Court ruling for a case called the Florida Sheriffs Association versus the Department of Administration:

"This particular plan that's already in place that the state has entered into a contract with these active state employees for. It does not say you can gut it, it doesn't say you can do away with it. It doesn't say you can change it to voluntary, it doesn't say you can change it to contributory, it says you can modify or alter this specific plan that's mandatory and noncontributory."

During the hearing, the state's lawyer, Doug Hinson, claimed all the Legislature did was modify the plan. Afterward, he said lawmakers had every right to alter the retirement plan for current state employees, forcing them to pay into their pensions.

"That same contractual right was in place 30 years ago and the Supreme Court issued its decision, and it said that contractual right promised people the benefits they'd earned up through today. It did not give them a contractual right to benefits that they would earn in the future."

Ron Meyer, a lawyer representing the Florida Education Association, one of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit, disagrees. He says not only did the Legislature violate state employees' collective bargaining rights and property rights, they also breached a contract.

"Not only do you have the collective bargaining issue here, you have the contractual right that the Legislature created that people who came into the employment of the state since January 1, 1975, you heard the court say they have been led to expect a certain kind of pension system. Now, you can bargain until the cows come home, but that's not going to change what that objective expectancy that's been created has been."

Also among the issues mentioned during the hearing was the Cost of Living Adjustment, or the COLA. According to the new law, it eliminates the annual 3 percent cost-of-living increases on any pension benefits earned after July 1st of this year.

That didn't sit well with John Park, who works as a corporal in the Orange County Sheriff's Office in Orlando. He is listed as one of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit, on behalf of the union currently representing many state correctional officers, the Florida Police Benevolent Association.

"From personal experience, I haven't gotten a raise in multiple years. So, I'm kind of getting a double whammy here, and not only is not my employer not paying me, but now the Governor and the Legislature is coming after me. And, it has kind of a negative effect. Kind of like a see-saw effect, basically as our pay goes down, our Cost-of-Living is going up and ultimately our quality of life is going down and it's just really unacceptable at the end of the day when you have all these people that are basically providing guidance for our future, especially our children, protecting and serving or teaching them that they're taking it like this, and it's just not right."

The plaintiffs for the lawsuit also include a county solid waste worker, sheriff's deputies, and public hospital employees, who also joined the suit to represent members of their respective associations.

Governor Rick Scott is listed as one of the defendants in the lawsuit because he is head of the board that oversees the investments of the Florida Retirement System of about 122-billion dollars.

It is not known when Judge Jackie Fulford is expected to make her decision. But, no matter the ruling, the case is expected to wind up before the Florida Supreme Court.